Simply food

CHOP CHOP

Once, when we were very young, I ventured into the strange world of stir fry. Now I’ve decided to tackle the Americanized version of Chinese food again.

Nigel, Richard and Mike 60 years on

The Ancestral Recipes of Shen Mei Lon is a pocket book of no great pretentions, published in New York in 1954. The book came back to me in its little presentation box through the kindness of a friendship renewed after many years. At Oundle School in the fifties, I shared a study with two contemporaries called Richard and Mike, where we cooked up extra grub for our insatiable appetites on a primitive paraffin stove. Last year, between lockdown sessions, I was able to reunite with both in a delightful long lunch at The Chequers pub in Chipping Norton, close enough to their homes and where I was staying for a week with my UK-based daughter. Sharing old stories, Mike mentioned my earlier love of cooking and said he had kept a book of mine all these years and would return it. A few days later it came in the post. Flipping through the pages quickly, I saw that it points out in the introduction that chow mein and chop suey as we enjoy it in the West are not truly authentic Chinese dishes, but invented or adapted for North American tastes. A good place to start.

Chow mein, or ch’ao miàn in Mandarin, means stir-fried noodles. The dish comes from Northern China and has been much altered to appeal to Western tastes. It is a simple dish of stir-fried vegetables with cooked noodles. Strictly speaking, soft noodles are called lo miàn.

Chop suey has no clear origin, but may have come from Guangdong province, the home of many early Chinese migrants to the United States. There the locals enjoyed a dish of tsap seui, meaning miscellaneous leftovers. Many of these early arrivals worked on building the cross-continental railways, or as cooks feeding the workers, spreading this ubiquitous dish across the land, with a more colloquial spelling.

Ancient book returned

Another source has the dish coming from the slang expression “chop chop” meaning “hurry up” in Cantonese, as the dish is prepared very quickly.

Both dishes are simplicity itself to prepare and if you like Chinese food, this is an easy entry point. Friends who have visited or indeed lived in China tell me neither dish can be had there in any form. American tourists and business people apparently complain that they can’t get proper Chinese food when they tour!

Apart from the fact that chow mein is noodle based, while chop suey is served with rice, both dishes are essentially the same, but with many variations depending on the cook or their guest’s preferences.

Stir frying is a quick and simple technique in which vegetables and proteins are quickly fried in a little oil in a special wok pan. If you are lucky enough to have a gas burner, then a round bottomed (and authentic) wok is preferred, but they are not suitable for electric burners. For that you will need a deep flat-bottomed round-sided pan.

Toss the veggies with confidence
[photo Megan Napier-Andrews]

Typical proteins could be a choice of chicken, beef, pork, seafood, fish or tofu. Vegetables are typically two or three choices of bean sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, sweet (bell) pepper, mushrooms, shallots or onions. Equally important are aromatic ingredients such as garlic and ginger. Finally, a mixture of soy sauce, rice vinegar and cornstarch will complete the dish. If the dish starts to dry too quickly, a dash of vegetable or chicken stock can be added. Garnishes such as green onions, sliced almonds, sesame seeds, cashews or water chestnuts make a crunchy finish. Add chopped basil, cilantro (coriander) or parsley for a final touch. As you become more adept other ingredients can be added or substituted.

Since the point is to cook everything very quickly, preparation is key. Peel and cut all the vegetables into bite size pieces, or slice them thinly, especially veggies that take longer to cook, such as carrots. Chop the garnishes and toppings. Meat should be cut against the grain for improved tenderness and into bite sized pieces. Have everything ready in small bowls. The sauce can be pre-mixed and kept handy in a jug. The best oil to use is one with a high smoke point, such as canola (rapeseed oil in UK) or peanut oil.

While doing the prep, cook the noodles or rice, so they are ready before starting the final stir fry.

I’m very lucky to have a large semi-professional stove in my Toronto kitchen, which has the added advantage of a special wok burner. This makes my job much easier, but any large ring on a gas stove will work. Electric burners are less satisfactory, but if you set it to its highest heat and take care, you will achieve quite satisfactory results. In both cases keep the heat to a maximum and take the wok on and off the heat to control cooking.

SHRIMP AND TOFU CHOW MEIN

Shopping list

Proteins

  • 1 cup fresh (or defrosted frozen), peeled and deveined shrimp
  • 1 cup firm tofu cubes

Starch

  • 2 cups chow mein noodles

Vegetables

  • ¼ cup celery, chopped
  • 1 onion, sliced finely and separated
  • ½ cup fresh bean sprouts
  • 1/2 cup sweet pepper (green, red, yellow or orange), deseeded, rinsed and chopped

Aromatics

  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly

Liquids

  • 4 TBSP canola (rape seed) oil
  • ¼ cup vegetable stock
  • 2 TBSP lemon juice (or ½ fresh lemon)

Sauce

  • 2 TBSP soy sauce
  • 1 TBSP oyster sauce
  • 1 tsp rice wine vinegar
  • 1 TBSP cornstarch

Garnishes

  • 2 green onions, sliced
  • 1 TBSP water chestnuts, sliced
  • 1 TBSP almonds, sliced
  • 2 TBSP fresh basil leaves, washed and julienned
  • Salt and pepper
  • Hot chili sauce

Preparation and cooking

  1. Cook the noodles in a saucepan of salted boiling water, about 3 mins. Drain in a colander. Bring 2 TBSP oil to smoking heat in the wok. Pat the noodles dry and pan fry for a couple of mins until golden, turning once. Reserve in a warm oven.
  2. Prepare the shrimp: if fresh, break off the head and tail and remove the shell, devein along the back; if frozen, defrost. Prepare the tofu: drain fresh tofu and pat dry with a kitchen towel, chop into bite sized cubes.
  3. Prepare the vegetables: wash and chop the celery, peel and slice the onion very finely and break into segments, wash and drain fresh bean sprouts, cut open the pepper, deseed, rinse inside and out, chop. Prepare the aromatic: peel the garlic cloves and slice very thinly. Prepare the sauce: mix the sauces and vinegar and whisk in the cornflour.
  4. Prepare the garnishes: slice the green onions, discarding the outer layer, top and roots. Canned water chestnuts often come pre-sliced, drain. Almonds can be purchased pre-sliced. Wash and julienne the basil leaves, discarding any stalks.
  5. Add oil to the wok on medium-high heat and cook the shrimp and tofu until golden. It doesn’t have to be cooked all the way through, since it will be added back into the wok for a final toss. TIP: Use a tossing motion to coat the pieces thoroughly and ensure they are cooked all around. Remove with a spatula and reserve in a warm oven, draining the oil back into the wok.
  6. Now add the aromatic and fry briefly, before adding all the veggies. Toss well together and stir fry until they are cooked but still crunchy. If the vegetables are still too crunchy, add a splash of vegetable stock, lower the heat, and steam for a couple of minutes.
  7. With the heat on high, add the shrimp and tofu back in and toss until well mixed. Now make a hole in the middle of the ingredients and pour in the sauce. TIP: Give the sauce a last minute whisk to ensure the cornstarch hasn’t settled to the bottom.  The heat will activate the cornstarch, which acts as a thickener, and the sauce will start to darken and bubble. Give the stir fry one final toss to make sure everything is covered with sauce and remove from the heat. Sprinkle on some lemon juice or squeeze half a fresh lemon over the top. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.
  8. Plate a portion of warm noodles in a large bowl or soup plate. Add a generous helping of the stir fry. Garnish freely and decoratively. Put a bowl of hot sauce on the side for your guests to add.

CHICKEN CHOP SUEY

Shopping list

Proteins

  • 2 cups cubed chicken breast

Starch

  • 2 cups white rice, uncooked

Vegetables

  • 1 head broccoli, cut into florets
  • 1 onion, peeled and sliced thinly
  • ½ cup fresh mushrooms, washed and quartered

Aromatics

  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
  • 1 piece ginger, peeled and sliced thinly into rounds

Liquids

  • 4 TBSP canola (rape seed) oil
  • ¼ cup chicken stock

Sauce

  • 2 TBSP soy sauce
  • 1 tsp rice wine vinegar
  • 1 TBSP cornstarch

Garnishes

  • ¼ cup cashews
  • 2 TBSP fresh parsley, washed and chopped
  • Salt and pepper
  • Hot chili sauce

Preparation and cooking

  1. Cook the rice in a rice steamer, about 15 to 18 mins, or in a pan of well salted boiling water until all the water has been absorbed, timed to be ready when the stir fry is cooked. Let the steamed rice stand for 10 mins and fluff it up with a fork.
  2. Prepare the chicken breast: remove skin and bone and cut into bite sized cubes. Cut across the grain to improve tenderness.
  3. Prepare the vegetables: remove the stalk from the head of broccoli and break or cut into florets; peel and slice the onion very finely and break into segments, wash the mushrooms, cut off the end of the stalk and quarter or slice depending on the size of the mushrooms, into bite sized pieces. Prepare the aromatics: peel the garlic cloves and slice very thinly; peel a piece of ginger about the size of a finger and slice into thin rounds. TIP: use a mandolin for the best result. Prepare the sauce: mix the soy and vinegar and whisk in the cornflour.
  4. Prepare the garnishes: Wash and chop the parsley, discarding any stalks. Measure out the cashew nuts.
  5. Add oil to the wok on medium-high heat and cook the chicken until golden. It doesn’t have to be cooked all the way through, since it will be added back into the wok for a final toss. TIP: Use a tossing motion to coat the pieces thoroughly and ensure they are cooked all around. Remove with a spatula and set aside, draining the oil back into the wok.
  6. Now add the aromatics and fry briefly, before adding all the veggies. Toss well together and stir fry until they are cooked but still crunchy. If the vegetables are still too crunchy, add a splash of vegetable stock, lower the heat, add a large lid and steam for a couple of minutes.
  7. With the heat on high, add the chicken back in and toss until well mixed. Now make a hole in the middle of the ingredients and pour in the sauce. TIP: Give the sauce a last minute whisk to ensure the cornstarch hasn’t settled to the bottom. The heat will activate the cornstarch, which acts as a thickener, and the sauce will start to darken and bubble. Give the stir fry one final toss to make sure everything is covered with sauce and remove from the heat. Sprinkle on some lemon juice or squeeze half a fresh lemon over the top. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.
  8. Plate a portion of warm rice in a large bowl or soup plate. Add a generous helping of the stir fry. Garnish freely and decoratively. Put a bowl of hot sauce on the side for your guests to add.
Featured image: Tossing chicken for stir fry [photo Megan Napier-Andrews]

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This is Nigel’s 299th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook is now live, well priced at $9.99 or £9.99.

4 replies »

  1. When you visit. I have several annual pre war YMCA cookery books from Malaya edited by my Mother which will amuse you.

    Like

  2. Thanks for renewing my interest in Stir Fry…yum!
    I’ve always store-bought the sauce, but with your recipe I can now make my own. I always have those simple ingredients on hand, so no running to the store.

    Like

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